Press Briefing

December 11, 2013 | 1:07:03 | Public Domain

White House Press Briefings are conducted most weekdays from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the West Wing.

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Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/11/2013

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:10 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Very quiet this afternoon.  I apologize for my tardiness.  I cannot use sleep deprivation as an excuse like so many of my colleagues can today who returned from a very eventful and short trip to South Africa earlier this morning.

Before we get started, I do have a quick announcement that I want to echo that you may have heard a little bit about already.  Today, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that the number of people who enrolled in federally run marketplaces in November was more than four times October’s enrollment -- evidence of technical improvements that were made to

Today, we’re also highlighting the investments made by the Affordable Care Act to expand access to high-quality health care for millions of Americans by strengthening community health centers across the country.  For more than 45 years, community health centers have delivered comprehensive, high-quality, preventative and primary health care to patients.  Today, approximately 1,200 health centers operate more than 9,000 service delivery sites that provide care to more than 21 million patients across the country. 

Health centers are also an integral source of local employment and economic growth in many communities.  They employ more than 148,000 workers nationwide and added more than 35,000 jobs over the last four years.  As community-based organizations, health centers are well positioned to play a vital role in providing health care to their communities as millions more Americans begin gaining health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. 

To help expand the capacity of health centers to provide health care, the Affordable Care Act includes approximately $11 billion for efforts to strengthen and grow our community health centers, including by establishing new sites, renovating existing health centers, and hiring more staff.  This is one of the many ways the Affordable Care Act is expanding access to quality health care for people across the country.

So with that important announcement, Mr. Kuhnhenn, I’ll let you get started today.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  A couple of those health numbers -- although that’s I believe more than three times the October total -- it’s still one-third of the 1.2 million that the administration originally planned to have by the end of November.  And today, Secretary Sebelius said that the backend of the system, that part of the system that pays insurers and assesses what the -- figures out what the tax subsidies will be, won’t be ready until mid-January.  So can the administration guarantee that anybody who wants to have insurance on January 1st will be able to get it?

MR. EARNEST:  If they sign up by December 23rd -- that’s the deadline that’s been put in place for individuals who would like to be covered by January 1st -- that’s the deadline that they have to meet.

Q    And everybody who wants to sign up by January 23rd -- or by December 23rd will be able to?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly, as you know, Jim, have added significant capacity to the website where we can handle much higher traffic to the website to accommodate the interest of people all across the country.  There have been some numbers that have been provided by CMS that indicate that the traffic to the website has spiked after reports that it was functioning smoothly for the vast majority of users.  That’s an indication that’s there’s strong interest all across the country on behalf of people who are interested in getting access to the affordable health care coverage that is now available through

So the improvements to the website allow us to accommodate more traffic and accommodate the significant interest that’s out there.  And according to the numbers that you’ve seen from HHS that were released today, there is a significant increase in the number of people who are actually following through and enrolling.  Now, the numbers that were released today all predate the most important and most tangible of the improvements to the website.  So it is reasonable to assume -- while I can’t provide you specific data -- that the number of people who are enrolling in health care over the last 10 days since the improvements to the website were implemented, that there are more people signing up.

So the trajectory is moving in the right direction and that’s something that we’re encouraged by.  But there also is this lingering problem, that I think that you’re referring to, that relates to the so-called 834 forms, which is the information being accurately conveyed from the website to the individual insurer who would be providing the insurance.  And there are a range of fixes that have been put in place to iron out the kinks in that process, and they have made tremendous progress in eliminating some of those problems.  And they also have in place a system for going back and confirming that individuals who signed up very early on in the first six or eight weeks, when they were having the most problems with the 834 program, to confirm essentially on both sides -- both with the insurance company and with the individual -- that both sides have done what they need to do to ensure that that person is covered and will be covered as of January 1st. 

So we are confident that we have put in place the kind of solutions that are required to confirm that individuals who sign up and enroll in a health care plan by December 23rd will be in a position to have that coverage take effect on January 1st.

Q    On a separate issue, reports today that the U.S. has halted all nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels operating in northern Syria -- I’m wondering, is the U.S. losing faith in the ability of rebels to fight without Islamic extremist interference or participation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, as you know, a significant portion of our policy towards Syria has been dedicated to providing support to those elements of the opposition that are moderate, that are committed to respecting basic human rights, that are committed to respecting the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and even the political minorities in that country.  So that has been a focal point of our efforts, particularly when it comes to the provision of nonlethal aid.

We have seen the reports that Islamic Front forces have seized the headquarters in question and warehouses belonging to the Supreme Military Council, and we’re obviously concerned by those reports.  We’re still gathering facts and consulting with General Idris and the Supreme Military Council staff to inventory the status of U.S. equipment and supplies that have been provided to the SMC. 

As a result of this situation, as you pointed out, the United States has suspended all further deliveries of nonlethal assistance into northern Syria.  At the same time, it’s important for people to understand that our humanitarian assistance, which is distributed through international and nongovernmental organizations including the United Nations, is not affected by this suspension.

Q    But is this in effect weakening the military opposition to Assad?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what we are interested in doing is trying to coordinate with and lift up the moderate elements of the opposition, and that has been a challenge from the very beginning -- both to identify the moderate elements of the opposition and to provide them the support that they need to try to bring about the kind of transition that reflects the will of the Syrian people.  That has been a challenging proposition from the very beginning and that continues to be challenging.

Q    And last, can you comment on the reports that the sign language interpreter that stood next to the President yesterday was apparently a fake?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ve seen those reports -- I’d refer you to the South African government about who that person was and what their responsibilities were.  I think my only reaction to that is that it’s a shame that you had a service that was dedicated to honoring the life and celebrating the legacy of one of the great leaders of the 20th century has gotten distracted by this and a couple of other issues that are far less important than the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Q    Any security concerns?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of, but I’d encourage you to check with the Secret Service to see if they had any concerns?  They’re ultimately responsible for the President’s security. 

So, all right, Mark, I’m going to give you the next one, but anybody in the back, I’m looking at you next.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  The budget deal announced last night did not include an extension of unemployment insurance, emergency unemployment insurance benefits.  Could the President sign a budget deal without those?  How does he intend to push forward to get something that he has said is a priority for him?

MR. EARNEST:  I believe the President’s statement last night indicated that he was pleased with the budget agreement that was reached between Senator Murray and Chairman Ryan, and that is an indication that the President would sign that agreement if it passes both the House and the Senate, which is what we expect. 

In terms of unemployment benefits, the President feels strongly that those unemployment benefits should be extended.  There is a very persuasive humanitarian case, if you will:  There are 1.3 million Americans right now who stand to lose their unemployment benefits if Congress doesn’t act by December 28th.  That obviously is a terrible circumstance.  It also has significant consequences for our broader economy that some analysts have found that the extension of emergency unemployment benefits would actually provide a significant boost to our economy, or at least a perceptible boost to our economy, in the form of creating about 240,000 jobs, having a positive impact on GDP on the order of two- or three- or four-tenths of a percent.

So the President will continue to advocate for this.  There have been a few previous occasions where we’ve come down to the wire like this, and through the President’s cajoling and advocating we’ve gotten some congressional action.  It remains to be seen if that will happen in this case, but that’s certainly something that we’re advocating for.  And this is something that we’ve talked about quite a bit.  There was a report from the Council of Economic Advisors last week on this.  The President’s weekly address just this past Saturday was on this topic.  So this is something that the President believes is a priority both for the economy, but also for the 1.36 million Americans who stand to lose their unemployment benefits during the holiday season.

Q    The White House has remained somewhat in the background in these budget talks compared with previous rounds of budget negotiations.  Is it the White House’s sense that by remaining somewhat in the background, you’ve lowered the temperature of these talks and thus contributed to the success of getting an agreement?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, in terms of sort of divining all of the different influences in that process, I think I’ll leave that to you guys.  What I think is important about this process is that we saw a genuine commitment from leaders in both parties to the regular order budget process.  We saw a lot of lip service paid to that notion in previous years, but I think it’s just in the last couple of months that we’ve seen a commitment on both sides to that regular order budget process.  That means that you essentially had the budget leadership on the Senate side and the budget leadership on the House side get together in bipartisan fashion and hash through these issues, and do it in a way that leads to a vehicle for genuine legislative action that actually addresses some of the problems. 

All of that was done in consultation with the White House -- that senior White House officials were involved in those conversations.  But ultimately this was an agreement that had to be struck between the leaders of the House and the leaders of the Senate.  That’s the way the Founding Fathers designed the system to work, and we’re gratified that they have reached a bipartisan agreement that is good for the economy.

I mean, look, you’ve heard us -- we’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years talking about budget agreements and trying to find common ground and striking bipartisan compromises.  The way that the President routinely evaluates these kinds of budget agreements is by taking a look at the impact that it would have on our economy.  And there are two important ways that this budget agreement has a positive impact on our economy.

The first is that it does repeal parts of the sequester.  The sequester was a significant drag on our economy over the course of the last year, and the President is pleased that Congress will be taking away at least some of that drag.  And it will give us the opportunity to invest in the kinds of things that are so important to our long-term economic growth.  Particularly early childhood education, Head Start programs stand to benefit from this.  There’s also the possibility of restoring some funding to research and development, which the President thinks is so critical to our economy.  So taking away some aspect of the sequester is a positive step.

The other thing that we’re seeing -- and this is something that, again, that people who have stood at this podium have expressed concerns about -- is this propensity that Congress has had lately to lurch from one crisis to another.  And in this case, Congress is able to reach what even I would describe as a modest agreement.  But they were able to reach that modest, bipartisan agreement without the threat of a crisis, without a threat of default, without the threat of a government shutdown, but by working through the regular order, by identifying some common ground and striking an agreement.  That is going to be -- that’s not just good for the political process, and might restore some faith in the ability of the United States Congress to actually get good things done on behalf of the American people.  It will also provide some certainty to the private sector.  This is something that Republicans have said is really important for our economy; the President agrees.  And that is another way in which our economy will benefit from what is a modest but important budget agreement.

Q    Jumping to an international issue, there’s renewed violence in Ukraine.  In spite of the White House and U.S. condemnations of past instances of violence, the violence seems to continue.  What leverage does the United States have to try to calm things down there?

MR. EARNEST:  I do have some prepared comment on this, so I’m going to start with that, and I’ll get to your direct question: 

The United States was appalled last night by what happened in Kiev.  The Ukrainian government’s response to peaceful protests over the last two weeks has been completely unacceptable, and it’s difficult to understand why they have decided to move against their own people repeatedly with force rather than engage in a real dialogue with the opposition.  The right to peaceful protest and assembly must be respected.  Violence of the sort that we have seen on the streets of Kiev is impermissible in a democratic state.  We’re also very concerned by credible reports of security services raiding the offices of opposition parties and media organizations in the last few days. 

Political repression is not the way to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Ukrainian people.  Vice President Biden urged President Yanukovych in a Monday phone call to avoid violence and immediately take steps to deescalate the situation.  He’s clearly not done that.  This is President Yanukovych’s moment to meet the aspirations of the Ukrainian people or disappoint them.  It is past time for the leadership in Ukraine to listen to the voices of its people and to restore a path to European integration and economic health.

It is fair to say that the lines of communication between this administration and the leadership in Ukraine remain open.  And I think the sentiments that I have just read to you also reflect broadly the opinions of the international community.  And there is a pretty clear choice it's facing, the Ukrainian government right now.  And we're hopeful that they will choose a path that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people and reflects an opportunity for reconciliation, and to restore some civility and peacefulness to that dispute and hopefully find a way to resolve that dispute peacefully. 

Q    If I can just follow up on one thing that I asked about earlier.  Speaker Boehner has apparently said today that he has not seen an acceptable plan from the White House to extend long-term unemployment insurance.  Can you respond to that?  Has the President made a proposal?  If not, why not?

MR. EARNEST:  A specific or detailed proposal in this case probably isn't required.  We're talking about extending a program that has been in place for several years now.  It was originally signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008.  It's been extended at least a couple of times in the last few years.  So we're simply seeking to see that program extended in the same way that it has been in the past by this Congress.

As I pointed out earlier, there are important consequences for 1.3 million Americans who are at risk of losing their unemployment benefits in just a couple of weeks.  And there are important consequences from our economy that would benefit from the extension of this program.  So that's what we're hopeful that Congress will do.

Let's go to the back here a little bit.  Jared.

Q    Josh, we're expecting the next -- I know we just got the most recent numbers, but the next numbers middle of January.  Will we get any report about the population of people who have signed up -- who have gotten in under the December 23rd deadline, since obviously that population will be transmitted to the insurers?

MR. EARNEST:  And you're asking?

Q    Will we get that information around Christmas?

MR. EARNEST:  What kind of information?

Q    The population of people who have signed up in advance of December 23rd for January 1 benefits.

MR. EARNEST:  Right.  And so you're asking if we'll have a list before January 1st of the people who have signed up by December 23rd?

Q    Or January 15th or January 11th.

MR. EARNEST:  I would not anticipate additional enrollment numbers until the middle of January, which has been our custom these last couple of months.  So that's when I would anticipate you'd get that additional data.

Q    And on the sign language question, I know that you said that -- referred it to the South African government.  But if the President had been translated into another language incorrectly, another audible language incorrectly, wouldn't that have been a breach of protocol?  Would we have not seen a different reaction from the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  That's a hypothetical.  It's difficult to evaluate for two reasons.  One is maybe he was translated incorrectly in some other language in his speech yesterday and we don't know about it.  That possibility does exist.

Secondly, it's not clear to me that this person mistranslated the President at all.  I think the point is, is that he apparently was not translating him into anything, but was enjoying the opportunity to be on the stage.  So it makes it difficult to answer your question.  (Laughter.)  And it's why I've referred the question to the South African government.

But, again, at the same time, this was an historic event in which the President delivered some very powerful remarks about the personal impact that President Mandela had on his own life and his own commitment to public service.

He talked pretty eloquently, I think, about the impact that President Mandela had on democratic movements all across the globe, and it would be a shame if a distraction about an individual who’s on stage in any way detracted from the importance of that event and the importance of President Mandela’s legacy.


Q    Hey, Josh, I have two questions.  Let me follow up first on the question of the budget.  If the President signs, as he indicated he’d like to, the Murray-Ryan deal, does that become the President’s template for his budget submission in February?  What does he do with that in his own budget for the coming cycle?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don't want to get ahead of the budget process.  As you would expect, this is something that involves a lot of planning and a lot of technical expertise to design a budget submission that reflects the President’s policy priorities.  So I wouldn’t want to get ahead of this process.

But suffice it to say the President is pleased that we’ve been able to find some common ground as it relates to this interim budget agreement that sets some parameters for what the budget will look like in Fiscal Year 2014 and Fiscal Year 2015, and therefore provide some stability and certainty for the private sector.

Q    Just to follow up on that one question, would we expect the President to take that forward and say, I’m signing this but I’d still like to get rid of sequestration over a 10-year period?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m confident that our budget proposal will include some of the President’s own ideas about the investments that are so critical for us to make to strengthen our economy, to expand economic opportunity for the middle class.  Those ideas will be reflected in the President’s budget.

Q    Okay, second question -- can you clarify why Mr. Podesta, who is coming in as a counselor next year, would feel the need to recuse himself, as been reported in AP, on Keystone when all of us in this room know that John, as being so linked with CAP, has many very known public views on many, many policies?

MR. EARNEST:  He does.  I’m glad you asked this question because I do want to take advantage of this opportunity to clarify something that leaked out late overnight.  The word “recuse” here is not the right word, right?  There’s no suggestion of some sort of conflict of interest, financial or otherwise, as it relates to Mr. Podesta’s opinions, views and positions on the Keystone pipeline.  So “recuse” is not the right word.

What is true is that Mr. Podesta approached Denis McDonough, the Chief of Staff, and suggested to him that Mr. Podesta shouldn’t work on the policy-making process related to the Keystone pipeline.  And the reason for that -- there are a couple of reasons for that.  The first is this is a policy process that looks at the State Department right now, not at the White House, and Mr. Podesta is coming to work at the White House, not the State Department.  The second thing is this a policy process that’s been in place for several years now, and having him enter that process at the very end or near the very end doesn’t seem to be the best way to carry out that process and to move it across the finish line.  The third thing -- and this is important, too, and it relates to the subject of your question -- his views on this are well known.  But there are people who have been working on this for a number of years and who are looking at this from a variety of perspectives, and want to make sure that this policy outcome reflects the President’s views and can approach it in an impartial way. 

The comments and views that Mr. Podesta has expressed have been done without the benefit of -- or without the reality of him working directly for the President of the United States.  So in this case, he felt it was most appropriate to basically send a signal early on that this is not something that would be part of his portfolio.  He communicated that desire to Mr. McDonough, and Denis agreed with him.

Q    If the natural follow-up then is just to say, is there any other policy terrain or topic that the President’s incoming counselor would feel or express to the President or the Chief of Staff that he should not or does not want to work on?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of right now.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  The health care law succeeding sort of depends on about 2.6, 2.7 million young, healthy people signing up by April 1st.  Do you have those figures -- how many of those people have signed up to date?

MR. EARNEST:  That is also a question -- you and Alexis must be coordinating, because this is the second question in a row that I’m pleased to have the opportunity to talk about -- because it is important for people to understand that as they evaluate the Affordable Care Act, that measuring the success of that program cannot simply be done based on the number of people who have signed up.  It would be nice if the world worked in that simple of a fashion.  It simply doesn’t. 

I understand the desire for people to want to try to reduce the metric to a simple number related to people who have enrolled in health care.  But that will not determine the success or failure of the Affordable Care Act and the exchanges that are set up -- the marketplaces that are set up under the rubric of the Affordable Care Act.

What we need is the right mix of individuals in these individual exchanges.  My point is, you can’t evaluate the success or failure of the Affordable Care Act based solely on the number of people who sign up all across the country.  What you should do to evaluate the success of the program is to consider the mix of people who have signed up in each of the individual marketplaces.  That is a task that’s hard to reduce down to one number.  But that is the best way for you and others to evaluate the overall success of the program. 

What our goal is, is to sign up as many people as possible, to give as many people all across the country as possible the opportunity to go onto the website, to work with a navigator in their community, to call the 1-800 number, and to find out what options are available to them.  And many people are going to find out that they’re going to qualify for tax credits.  Some of them will qualify for expanded Medicaid coverage.  But there are a lot of ways in which individuals will find out that they’re going to benefit from the Affordable Care Act, and we want as many people as possible to do exactly that. 

Q    All right.  And I understand that you don't want to give specific numbers.  But HHS last night said they’re on track to have 7 million people sign up by April 1st.  And a lot of industry insiders have questioned that and have said the pace really needs to pick up if you're going to get that many people.

MR. EARNEST:  It does.

Q    Not dealing with the 7 million figure, does the pace need to pick up?  And can you guarantee that you're going to get the right mix and the right number in the end by April 1st?

MR. EARNEST:  What we have said about the website since before the website was even rolled out was that there would not be a linear relationship between the number of days that have gone by since the website opened for business and the number of people who would sign up; that we anticipated that there would be some spikes in this process.  We anticipated, for example, that there would be a spike shortly before the deadline in which people -- that people needed to meet in order to get insurance coverage by January 1st.  That deadline has been moved to December 23rd to give more people the opportunity to sign up. 

And we do anticipate that there will be a spike in advance of December 23rd.  For all we know, there is a spike going on right now.  And that's because of -- that's simply ascribable to nothing other than human nature, that we have -- that we're compelled to take action when we get close to a deadline.  So I would anticipate that we'll see another spike in mid-March before the deadline for the open enrollment period expires.  So we've always anticipated that there will be spikes in this process, that there would be more traffic and a greater rate of enrollment at certain periods than others.

So that's why it's difficult to assess exactly what we're on pace for.  What I can tell you, though -- let me just say one last thing, which is because of the improvements we've made to the website, we now have the bandwidth to accommodate about 800,000 or a million people a day to visit the website.  And that means that there should be ample opportunity for people who are interested in this program to go check it out for themselves.

Q    And just to be clear, these figures that you've put out today are the number of people who have signed up, not actually enrolled?  In other words, not necessarily sent in their checks and finished with the entire process?

MR. EARNEST:  My understanding is that they actually provided two different numbers along these lines -- didn't they?  Let me take a look here.  I think they did put out enrollment numbers.  They said that 365,000 people through November had enrolled. 

Q    Have actually sent in their checks, finished?  Okay.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that they have enrolled, that they have committed -- that they have signed up for a proposal.  I think the payment option is something that is responsible for the individual insurance companies to execute.  But in terms of the enrollment, that they have made a commitment and that they have selected a plan that they like and would allow them to get coverage by January 1st if they've done it obviously in October or November.

Q    And can I just get you to respond -- or does the President have any response to these latest poll numbers, which show his lowest -- or his highest disapproval ratings ever?  Does he feel like it's time for a reset?  Is that part of the reason for bringing in Podesta?  How does he view those?

MR. EARNEST:  No.  To be honest with you, we don't spend a lot of time looking at these individual poll numbers.  You've heard us say that both when the numbers are good and when the numbers aren't as good, as was suggested by at least one poll today.  I know there's another poll that suggested something different. 

But the fact of the matter is what we've been looking at, and I think what I would encourage you to consider, is that while your poll was in the field, there were some important priorities that we made progress on.  Mel Watt got confirmed to be the director of the FHFA.  Patricia Millett got confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals -- right?  The Volcker Rule got voted on and approved, and is now being implemented -- something that six months ago you guys thought I was crazy if I had suggested the Volcker Rule would be done by the end of the year.  We even got a budget agreement through the Congress. 

So these are the kinds of priorities that we're focused on.  And all these things happened just yesterday at the same time that you were announcing the results of your poll.  So that's what we're focused on.
Q    Fair enough.  But the poll shows that his signature piece of legislation is health care law.  It's part of the key reason that these numbers are so low.

MR. EARNEST:  I mean, the truth is, Kristen, you could say that any time over the last three years when it comes to these polls.  The President has made clear that the President has pursued the difficult topic of health care reform not because it would burnish his poll numbers, but because he thought it was the right thing for the country; that it would expand affordable, quality health care to millions of Americans who currently don't have it; and it would also do really good things for our economy in terms of expanding economic opportunity and creating jobs. 

So that's the reason that we've pursued health care reform, and that's the reason that we're working so doggedly to implement it in a way that will maximize the benefits for people all across the country in spite of the poll numbers. 


Q    Thank you.  Two questions -- both foreign and domestic.  First, Kathleen Sebelius today announced that she has asked the IG over at HHS to investigate what happened with the website.  I mean, presumably, the IG, who is after all supposed to be independent of what Kathleen Sebelius wants or doesn't want, is going to do that himself.  Is that adequate?  Is that enough?  Should there be more?  Should heads roll?  Should there be further investigation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that there were -- the reason I'm looking at my notebook is because there were a couple of other things that she announced.  She did ask the Inspector General to take a look at the process related to the development of and to examine the mistakes that occurred and to offer up some solutions and some suggestions for how to improve that process moving forward. 

There are a couple of other steps that she announced today.  She also announced that she had directed the CMS Administrator, Marilyn Tavenner, to create a new position and appoint a CMS chief risk officer, who will focus on mitigating risk across CMS's programs, to basically evaluate the ongoing progress or lack thereof of CMS programs, and to try to intervene before they result in significant problems like the rollout of the website.

She also announced a new training regime that would update and expand the training process to give CMS employees more information about best practices for contractor and procurement management rules and procedures.

So there are a number of things that the Secretary announced today that would address some of the problems that were exposed by the website rollout.  And I would anticipate that if there are other ideas that she has about what we can do to strengthen the process, the internal processes over at HHS, that she’ll propose those, too.  I wouldn’t anticipate that this is the --

Q    Do you anticipate more actions to be taken?

MR. EARNEST:  I would leave open that possibility.  I don't know of anything else that's planned right now, but I certainly would leave open that possibility. 

Q    All right.  And back on Syria, just to follow up, nonlethal aid -- I mean, a lot was made about lethal aid finally being sent after the chemical attack.  Why is this moratorium only on nonlethal aid?  What about lethal aid?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, for questions about that I think I’d actually refer you to my colleagues at the national security staff.  I don't have details about any changes to other assistance that might have been provided by the administration.


Q    Josh, on that question that Mike was asking about accountability with Secretary Sebelius -- on the Podesta hire, you’ve obviously added him, you’ve added Phil Schiliro as well, a familiar face around here.  But is the President planning to subtract anyone from the equation?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have any personnel announcements at this point.

Q    So you don't -- I mean, I realize you don't have them at this moment, but you don't expect -- as the end of the year comes, you don't expect there will be any changes?

MR. EARNEST:  I think it is -- having covered us for the last five years, Ed, you’re aware that the end of the year is a traditional time for people to make some decisions about their own personal lives and to make decisions to leave the administration and pursue other opportunities.  That also means that people from the outside are brought into the White House during that period.  And I would anticipate that something like that is probably going to happen again around the end of this year and the beginning of next, but that is not a -- that is neither a commendation or a condemnation of their performance at the White House at this point.

Q    On Kristen’s question about polls -- I’m glad you referenced that you don't look at any individual polls, because I checked the gaggle on November 25th and you said the same about a poll that day that said that 53 percent of the public -- I think it was a CNN poll -- thought the President was not trustworthy.  And you said you don't follow the ups and downs, but you're looking at “the broader trends.”  So since November 25th, there’s been a fair number of polls that suggest a trend that the President’s honesty, trustworthiness has taken a hit -- in a whole range of polls.  Will you at least acknowledge that the health care issue has damaged the President’s credibility?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't think I agree with that conclusion.  I recognize that there may be some polling evidence to indicate that, but just looking at polls I don't think gives you a very good read about what the President’s priorities are.  And I don't think it gives you a very good --

Q    We’re talking about the public’s mood -- not his priorities -- but what the public thinks about.  The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll says a lot of people -- I think it was 75 percent -- think the economy is either going to be as good or better next year.  That's good for the President.  And yet, they're not giving him credit for that and saying that -- his disapproval has reached a new high.  Not about his priorities, but the public’s mood seems to be very sour on him.

MR. EARNEST:  Sure.  I understand.  Look, I think it is perfectly legitimate for your news organization and others to consider all of the public data out there and to draw assessments about what the public mood is.  I think that is a perfectly legitimate enterprise. 

I think I’m just making the case to you that that's not what we’re focused on, that there are a variety of other policy priorities that the President believes is more important than trying to figure out within a particular statistical confidence interval what his polling numbers are.  So what we’re focused on right now is the President’s core priorities related to expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. 

And if we can make progress by extending emergency unemployment benefits, if we can raise the minimum wage, if we can put in place policies that will ensure that every child in America has access to a quality early childhood education program, that those are the kinds of things that are going to have a material difference on our economy.  And if we can make progress on those priorities, the poll numbers are going to take care of themselves.

Q    Two other quick things.  On the website, at the top, in responding to Jim, you were saying that if anyone signs up by December 23rd, they will be “in a position to get insurance.”  But his question was, are you guaranteeing that they will get it -- not that they’ll be in a position to get it -- but if you sign up by December 23rd, are you guaranteeing you’ll have insurance on January 1?

MR. EARNEST:  That is the deadline that we have established for individuals -- that if people who sign up on December 23rd, that that’s what they need you to do in order to qualify for insurance coverage by January 1st.  We have individuals who are -- we have a team of experts, actually, more than just individuals, these are experts who are in place to make sure that the proper linkages are connected between the insurance companies and the individuals who are enrolled.

Q    But you can’t guarantee them.  People are trying, but you can’t guarantee them.

MR. EARNEST:  We are confident that by December 23rd we’ll have ironed out these problems.  And Mr. Zients himself has said that we are confident that past and future 834 issues will be resolved.

Q    Very last thing on the budget today -- you said the President is pleased with it; he put out on a statement to that effect.  Paul Ryan, though, is touting the fact that he says that it sets a new precedent.  It’s all spending cuts for the deficit reduction, no tax increases.  The President ran in the last campaign, as you know better than anyone, on saying there has to be a balanced approach -- that’s his guiding principle.  He won the election and said that’s how we’re going to do it.  Paul Ryan says now there’s a new deal -- it’s spending cuts, no tax increases.  So does that suggest his guiding principle is no longer valid?

MR. EARNEST:  It does not.  The President continues to be  --

Q    Well then why didn’t he get it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me answer your first question, then I’ll get to your second one. 

The President is committed to a balanced approach, and that is something that he’ll continue to advocate for.  This deal actually does reflect a balanced approach.  The President is committed to making sure that we’re not in a position where we’re asking middle-class families or Medicare beneficiaries or people who rely on Social Security income to pay the bills -- we’re not going to ask those people to make sacrifices if we’re not also going to ask the oil and gas companies to make sacrifices, or for hedge fund managers to make sacrifices.

So the President will continue to pursue a balanced approach to deal with our deficit challenges.  But what’s also important as the President considers these kinds of budget agreements is he wants to make sure that the priorities that are included in these budgets reflect what should be our core priority, which is expanding economic opportunity for the middle class, and that is something that -- again, this is a modest budget agreement but it does reflect those priorities.

Moving forward, the President will continue to make the case for budget agreements that are focused on middle-class priorities.  The President will also continue to make the case for tax reform that reflects middle-class priorities, and that is something that we should be able to find common ground on.  And if this is a precedent for finding common ground with Republicans, where we’re going to -- to go to your second question -- where we’re actually going to compromise on something, where neither side is going to get everything that they want but both sides are going to be able to point to something that they think is positive about the deal, then I hope that it is a precedent.


Q    Thank you very much.  Following up on Alexis’s questions, why would Mr. Podesta feel a need to, I guess, remove himself if he knows already, I assume, that the process at the State Department, it just doesn’t square?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is -- well, because he doesn’t work at the State Department, I guess is the first thing, right?  So this is a process that lives there.  At some point, there will be some --

Q    But why would he need to remove himself if he is coming here?  That’s what I’m confused about.

MR. EARNEST:  Right.  Because the process will eventually shift to the White House, that there will be some White House involvement in that process.  The President has talked about that pretty extensively already.  And he felt like it was -- that it was in the best interest of that policy-making process to not insert himself and his well-known views at the very end of that process.

Q    But he has no -- you said -- no financial or other conflicts of interest besides his previous stated stance --

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of -- not that I’m aware of.  But suffice it to say that Mr. Podesta like everybody else who works here will meet the most stringent ethics requirements in history that the President put in place in his first day in office.

Q    Thank you.  And then one other question.  I know that last week in his interview with MSNBC, the President spoke pretty glowingly of Pope Francis, and today he was named Person of the Year.  Have they spoken at all recently?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t believe that they have, actually.  I think the President said in that interview that he had not had the chance to speak to him yet.  But I think I’ll let the President’s words stand.  The President spoke eloquently about what an important figure and what a really important message Pope Francis has sent to the world in just the six or eight months that he has held that important position in the Catholic Church.


Q    Couldn’t you also argue, countering Paul Ryan’s assessment, that the new precedent is the Budget Control Act has been rewritten, at least for two years, and that the sequestration numbers have changed and there’s going to be more spending than there was under the past agreement that was also bipartisan and also signed by the President?

MR. EARNEST:  You guys are interested in drawing precedents here.  I’m actually interested in looking at the impact that this budget deal will have on our economy, and that’s how the President made --

Q    That’s the latest deal, though.  You don’t disagree with anything I just said, do you?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I --

Q    I’m not asking you to rub his nose in it.  I’m just saying, isn't that the fact?

MR. EARNEST:  (Laughter.)  I’m not suggesting that I would.  What I’m --

Q    Why don’t you answer the question?

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m suggesting is, is that what we have reached is a compromise agreement.  The President certainly did not get everything that he would like to see in this budget agreement, and Mr. Ryan, I think as he has said a couple of times publicly now, didn’t get everything that he wanted.  But what they were able to do was put aside those differences and focus on some common ground and strike an agreement that is in the best interests of our economy, and that’s something that the President is pleased about.  And again, if putting aside partisan differences, focusing on common ground and demonstrating a willingness to reach a compromise, if that’s precedent-setting, we’re all for it.

Q    Then let’s go down that road a little bit.  Because if the precedent is to use one year or very short-term fees and other minor-league revenue increases, and adjust spending upward, this seems to be not a small step toward a grand bargain, but a complete step in the opposite direction.  Because none of the structural things are dealt with because the politics was obviously too difficult for both sides to even discuss, let alone draft.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t agree with all of that at all.  A couple of things.  One is, I’m not comparing this to a grand bargain at all.  The first time anybody in this room has said “grand bargain” is when you did.  I didn’t say that.

Q    No, I’m not suggesting you did.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay, okay. 

Q    But that’s been the sort of overhang for all these confrontations for quite some time.

MR. EARNEST:  It has, it has.  And the President’s proposal for that grand bargain continues to sit on the table for -- continues to sit on the table right now.  That is an option that is available and that has been.  I think we’re coming up on the year anniversary of that initial proposal.  It was codified in the President’s budget as well.  But what we’re focused on right now is trying to strike budget agreements that reflect the best interests of our economy.  It is our view that a so-called grand bargain, based on the outlines that the President has put forward, would actually do really good things for our economy.  A more modest agreement, like the one that was reached just yesterday, would also do helpful things for our economy, and that’s why the President is pleased --

Q    Or less harm.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m a glass half-full kind of guy, Major.

Q    Okay.  Why didn’t you demand also a resolution for the same period of time, or at least another period of time, on the debt ceiling?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the fact of the matter is Senator McConnell has been pretty outspoken ever since the end of the government shutdown back in October that we’re not going to be in a position, that Republicans are not going to be part of holding the economy hostage and not going to be part of threatening default.  And we at the White House are confident that Senator McConnell is right.

Q    So you think you can deal with that?  That’s not an issue anymore?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s the responsibility of the Congress to deal with it, and we’re confident that they will without any drama.

Q    All right.  Let me just put two things together that you said about December 23rd, January 1st coverage, and what Secretary Sebelius testified to.  Because I think there’s a fundamental disconnect there.  She says the backend of the website -- which is the part through which insurers are paid and guaranteed payment is confirmed -- won’t be done until mid-January.  How can you so assertively predict with confidence that those who sign up on December 23rd will have actionable coverage on January 1st?  Because they have to -- as every customer does, has to go through the backend system.  I mean, are you literally going to have people sort of monitoring everyone who falls into that category of December 23rd and January 1st coverage?  Because if you don’t, I don’t see how they don’t slip through the cracks.

MR. EARNEST:  Let me unpack a couple of things.  Because I was getting ready for this briefing, I wasn’t able to watch every minute of her testimony.  My understanding, though, about those references to some aspects of the backend needing to be fixed or still need to be built, that relates to several other processes related to health care -- not necessarily to this one 834 issue.  So that’s the first thing.

But the second thing is that the problems that we’ve had with that program were much worse very early on.  So in October and November, we saw that the 834s were not functioning and not being transmitted with a lot of accuracy, that there were concerns about information being left off the forms, that there were duplicates being sent.  Because of some of the technological fixes that have been implemented over the course of the month of November, a lot of those problems -- I guess I should say this:  The rate of those problems has dropped significantly. 

So now, at the same time, there also were many fewer people who are enrolling in health care because of the problems related the website.  So the universe of people who are -- who could potentially be affected by some of the 834 problems is relatively small.  And we have a team of experts who is working both through technological fixes, but also through some elbow grease, going through and confirming that that information has been conveyed accurately and completely, and to confirm that they will be signed up for health care and eligible to get covered on January 1st.

Q    Back to Jared’s first question.  It seems amazing to me that you will not and HHS will not commit to as thorough as possible a discussion of these numbers on January 1st or very soon thereafter.  Because that is your very first actual acid test of numbers and people who sought coverage and obtained it.  And is the entire country and those consumers themselves going to have to wait until the middle of January to find out if it all worked?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, those consumers individually will know whether or not they’re signed up because they’ll --

Q    Then why not tell us?  Because then you'll know, as well.

MR. EARNEST:  -- have signed up by December 3rd.  We will tell you as soon as we can, and I think waiting a couple of weeks to make sure that we’ve scrubbed the numbers and got that information accurate, that we have ensured that there are no duplicates involved.  We’re also compiling information from 14 different state-run exchanges.  We’re also compiling information that didn’t just go through the website, but also went through either in-person signups or through the call centers.  There are a variety of ways that people can sign up.

So compiling all that information, scrubbing it, deduping it, making sure that that information is accurate, considering the numbers that we’re expecting, that the fact that that process might take 10 or 15 days I don’t think is an inordinate period of time for you to wait and be able to evaluate what kind of progress we’ve made, and to evaluate the success of the program.


Q    I have to confess I was not confused about Podesta recusing himself from Keystone until you described the reasons for it.  (Laughter.)  So you say he asked to recuse, but not exactly recused himself, because it’s --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let’s not say “recuse.”  That he said that he wouldn’t work on it.  But go ahead.

Q    Okay.  Because it’s at State, not at the White House --- which sort of raises the question, then why doesn’t he recuse -- excuse himself from everything that’s handled at every agency outside the White House -- but fine, at the end of the process you say it’s going to come to the White House, and he doesn’t want to insert himself at the end of the process, but it hasn’t come to the White House yet, so everybody at the White House would be uncertain of themselves at the end of the process.  So that doesn’t really make sense.  So I’m just trying to understand the reasons.

MR. EARNEST:  Sure.  I’m going to take one more run at trying to explain it to you.  Put simply, this is a process that is run by the State Department right now.  Certainly, White House officials are aware of where we are in that process.  They have been consulting with people at the State Department about that process.  But ultimately, that is a process that is run by the State Department.  The President has indicated how strongly he -- has indicated his interest in this program, in the way that it’s -- or this determination in the way that it’s resolved.  So the White House is in the loop as this process moves forward. 

What Mr. Podesta has simply said is that he has very well-known views on this topic.  They’ve been publicly expressed.  Those views were publicly expressed before he started working for the President.  And so it is his view that it is better if his well-known views are not injected at the very end of that process.  So he has said to Mr. McDonough that he would prefer not to work on that process and to state so publicly, and Mr. McDonough agreed that that was the best course of action.

Q    But that still leaves the original question unanswered of why, given the wide range of things he’s expressed views on, he would ask not to be involved in only this one.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  I guess because this is a view that is -- these are views that have been strongly expressed and have gotten a lot of attention.  And there’s no doubt that he’s expressed his views on a range of other things, too.  Many of those things are, frankly, less controversial and have become -- aren’t as much of a lightning rod as this particular issue has become. 

Q    Can I also ask you about Podesta?  This administration for a long time has been criticized as too insular.  The President was asked about it in his last lengthy news conference.  Does bringing in Podesta in some way acknowledge that insularity was in fact a problem? 

MR. EARNEST:  I think that might be reading too much into one man’s hiring.  I think the reason that I can state definitively that the reason that Mr. Podesta was hired was because the President has confidence in him as a political professional, somebody who has been through some very difficult political fights, but also somebody who knows a lot about moving policy in Washington, D.C. 

Mr. Podesta is somebody who, as is known from his outspoken views on some issues, shares the President’s worldview and shares the President’s priorities on a range of issues, including trying to address this question of economic mobility and economic inequality in this country.  So he is somebody who shares the President’s worldview and is looking forward to rolling up his sleeves and working with the President to try to make progress on some of these issues. 

The last thing is that Mr. Podesta has very strong relationships with people on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans.  He’s got strong relationships with many of you in the news media.  He’s got strong relationships with other influential people in Washington, D.C.  And so could he contribute to trying to make sure that outside opinions are reflected in the White House’s internal decision-making process?  Yes, I think that he can play a role in doing exactly that.  And maybe that does address some of the concerns that some have expressed about insularity at the White House, but I can tell you that the responsibility that Mr. Podesta will wield at the White House is much greater than that.


Q    Josh, I wasn’t even going to ask about Keystone, but what’s taking so long for this decision?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I mean --

Q    I mean, this has been going on for years.  Why are we still --

MR. EARNEST:  It has.  Well, there have been a couple of times where the process got upended because of concerns that were raised by the Republican governor of Nebraska and the route that had been proposed.

Q    Yes, that’s ancient history, too. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, but you said it’s going on for years, and that's one of the things that slowed down the process.  So I think that demonstrates the commitment of the administration to get this right.  It demonstrates that there are people in both parties who have a range of views on this topic.  And what the State Department is doing is they're reaching a determination of national interest. 

Q    Is this a pocket veto?  Is this basically like run out the clock?

MR. EARNEST:  That's not something that should be taken lightly.  It certainly isn’t taken lightly by the President or his administration.

Q    So you’re not running out the clock?  Because if you delay and then you don’t make a decision, it doesn't get built, you know?

MR. EARNEST:  That's not how I’d characterize the ongoing policy process.

Q    What I wanted ask about was the famous handshake with Raul Castro.  And I’m wondering -- we all saw the President exchanged some words with Castro.  I’m wondering what those words were, and did the name Alan Gross, the American political prisoner being held in Cuba, come up?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s my understanding -- I obviously wasn’t there.  That's why I’m not sleep deprived today.  It’s my understanding, based on people who did talk to the President after his speech, that they didn't have a robust, substantive conversation about policies, but rather exchanged some pleasantries as the President was making his way to the podium.  So there was not an opportunity for the President to chronicle his many concerns about human rights abuses on the island of

The President did not have the opportunity to say to him directly something that he said many times, which is that Alan Gross should be released.  So they did not have an opportunity to have a robust exchange of ideas.  Rather, they had an opportunity to exchange pleasantries.

Q    So you said the President has said many times that Alan Gross should be released?

MR. EARNEST:  He’s said it before.  Maybe it’s not many times, but he has said before that Alan Gross should be released.  I think we put out a statement from the President just a couple of days ago on this topic.

Q    And what -- so I understand he’s there, he passed -- I know this was not a prearranged handshake.  But obviously, you knew that Castro was going to be up there on that stage.

MR. EARNEST:  That's correct.

Q    Was it discussed beforehand what to do when the two would inevitably come face to face?

MR. EARNEST:  Not to my knowledge.  Not to my knowledge.

Q    And can you -- you’ve seen some of the criticism.  John McCain actually compared this to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler.  What’s your response to all that criticism, that people say that the President shouldn’t have given Castro the opportunity to have a handshake with the leader of the United States?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, first of all, the President shook hands with everybody who was on the stage, and Mr. Castro was one of those individuals who was on the stage. 

The second thing I’d point out is, I think even in the few number of times that I’ve stood at this podium, I’ve been asked about other people who have tried to draw connections between recent political events and the terrible reign of Adolph Hitler.  That is a dangerous and usually unwise thing to do in public.

The third thing I guess I would say is that there used to be a pretty important principle that originated in the Republican Party, I believe, that partisan politics should stop at the water’s edge.  And it’s unfortunate that we did see a number of Republicans yesterday who criticized the President for a handshake at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  That is I think an important progression in a number of politicians’ views on that topic.

Q    Is there anybody that the President would not -- is there any world leader the President would not shake hands with?  If Assad had been on that stage, Kim Jong-un had been on that stage -- I mean, is there -- I’m trying to gauge the principle.  He shook hands with everybody on the stage.  I mean, is there anybody he wouldn’t?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a difficult hypothetical to entertain, and I decline to do it at this point.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  To follow on Kristen’s question about a reset -- and I know you say you don’t want to dwell on polls -- but it’s hard to ignore the fact that almost an alarming number of Americans have lost confidence in President Obama and his signature achievement.  So in light of that, on a reset, is this addition -- we’re seeing the additions of John Podesta, Phil Schiliro, presumably some other folks who are in the works.  Should that be seen as a reset?  And does the President think that he needs a reset?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there’s a lot in that question, so let me try to do them one at a time.  The first is, the headline from the New York Times in their poll today was that Obama sees a rebound in his approval rating.  So I recognize that there’s a lot of polling data out there, but it’s not reaching any uniformed conclusions as far as I can tell. 

The second thing, in terms of the need for a reset, as you described -- I think the President has -- well, let me go back to something I said earlier before I talk about the President.  You’ve covered us closely over the last several years and you recognize that typically at the end of the calendar year people are making their own decisions about whether they can continue to government service if they want to pursue other opportunities that might afford them the opportunity to spend some more time with their family.  So that is part of a natural transition that you see on an annual basis at the White House, and I would anticipate that you’d see some more of that this year, too.  Many of those people will be people that did not work on -- were not involved in coding 

But in terms of the President, the President is very pleased with the performance of members of his senior team at the White House who have been working hard to advance his agenda.  And he is also excited about the prospect of bringing on somebody like Mr. Podesta who would bring a fresh perspective and a fresh set of eyes to some of the challenges that we’ve been dealing with here for the last several years. 

So that’s why Mr. Podesta is a welcome addition to the team, and it’s why this President is looking forward to all of us hopefully getting a little time off for the holidays, but coming back at the beginning of next year hopefully a little bit more rested with his sleeves rolled up, ready to pursue an agenda that is focused on expanding economic opportunity for the middle class.  And that will be an opportunity that the President looks forward to.

Q    On unemployment benefits, Republicans are demanding an offset to the cost of them.  It doesn’t sound like you were proposing one.  So I’m wondering if, come January 1st, when you have over a million Americans who are set to lose their unemployment benefits, if the President will have felt that he did enough, having just talked about the need to extend them, albeit a lot, instead of looking to try to find some middle ground with Republicans.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess I would point out that extending emergency unemployment benefits is something that had previously been a location of common ground, if you will.  This was a program that was originally signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush.  It is something that had passed the Congress with bipartisan support.  When it was passed and signed into law by a Republican President, it did not include specific offsets.  There are a couple times over the last couple of years in which emergency unemployment benefits had been extended through the Congress.

Q    But you just said you’re not interested in looking at precedents.

MR. EARNEST:  Let me finish this.  This is important.

Q    So if you’re looking at the reality that is right now --

MR. EARNEST:  I will leave it to you, as I did to Major, to draw questions of precedent in this case.  What I am suggesting is that when this bill was signed into law it did not include offsets.  When it was renewed -- or extended, the last couple of times, which I think happened in 2010 and 2012, both times it was -- that extension was approved with bipartisan support and neither time did that extension include specific offsets.

So if Republicans want to have a conversation about doing something differently than what we’ve done before and offsetting the cost of what everybody acknowledges is an emergency program -- it certainly is an emergency for the 1.3 million Americans who stand to lose their unemployment benefits at the end of the year -- then we’ll have that conversation.  But it’s also important for you and your viewers to understand that when this bill was signed into law and when it was extended with bipartisan support through the Congress, offsets were not part of the equation.

Q    But that's the demand now.  And you said --

MR. EARNEST:  That's not what I said.  I actually -- I said a lot, so I'll give you a pass on that.  What I also said is that if that's what Republicans are going to insist on this time, we are willing to have a conversation with them about that.  But that is not what they have insisted on in the past.  And I just think that's important for people to understand. 


Q    Thanks, Josh.  Is it still the administration's position that the Afghan security agreement has to be signed by the end of the year?

MR. EARNEST:  What we have said about this, Scott, is that in order for the United States and our allies to plan for the post-2014 military presence, if there is one, we need to start that planning process soon.  There is an agreement on the table that was hammered out through a series of painstaking negotiations over the course of this year between Afghan leaders and allied leaders.

We believe that that text reflects the best interests of both the Afghan people as well as the American people.  It also reflects the best interests of our allies, who are also involved in trying to provide -- to assist the Afghan people, provide security for their country.  So we have the text of an agreement that reflects the best interests of both sides.  We also have an agreement that the loya jirga has endorsed, and that that leadership council in Afghanistan has also urged President Karzai to sign this document sooner rather than later -- not because that would be a favor to us, but precisely because it's in the best interest of the Afghan people for that to happen. 

So it is our view that that is a document that should be signed as soon as possible, and that at the very least it should be signed by the end of this year in order for us to start going through the important planning process.  Now, if you're asking me, does that mean that if they sign it on January 10th, that's going to be a huge problem -- probably not.  What will be a significant problem is if there is not quick action taken to get this signed.


Q    A couple of follow-ups on the jobless benefits again.  If there isn't any action this year, would the President propose something next year, early next year and make it retroactive? 

MR. EARNEST:  I think I would say it simply this way: There is no reason they shouldn't be able to get it done this year.  This is something that they got done with strong bipartisan support in the past.  A couple of times they've extended this program.  It was originally signed into law by President Bush.  I know there is strong Democratic support for extending emergency unemployment benefits.  And presumably, there should be, as there has been in the past, strong Republican support for it too -- again, not just because it would meet the needs of 1.3 million Americans who stand to lose their unemployment benefits at the end of the year, but also because of the tangible impact it would have on our economy.

Q    You mentioned that the President would continue to advocate for it.


Q    How is he going to do that?  You got three days.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think I’m advocating for it in his name right now.  You saw the President deliver --

Q    There’s a difference between just speaking about it as opposed to picking up the phone and calling people --

MR. EARNEST:  Sure.  There have been senior White House officials here as recently as today who have been in touch with members of Congress about this exact issue. 

The President and his team are engaged because this is a priority.  Again, this is an opportunity for us to do something not just to meet the needs of people who are standing to lose their unemployment benefits around the holidays, but also an opportunity for us to do something important for the economy, that extending unemployment benefits could create 240,000 jobs.  That seems like a win-win and something that Congress should act on.

Q    Okay, just to clarify, the legislation that the President supports is the Levin bill in the House, that's a one-year extension, and the CBO estimates about $26 billion, is that correct?

MR. EARNEST:  To be honest with you, I don't know about specific pieces of legislation, so we’ll have to get back to you on that.  Suffice it to say we think it’s important for the benefits to not run out on December 28th. 

April, I’m going to give you the last one.

Q    I have two questions, really fast.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay, the last two.  (Laughter.)

Q    As you talk about poll numbers, what polls is the White House paying attention to more so?  Internal polls, Democratic polls?  I mean, since you’re talking about the varied results from various polls.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we read the newspaper at the White House, and we occasionally watch a little television, so we certainly are aware of the reporting on polls that are conducted.  But I got to tell you, in terms of the priorities of the White House, following the progress of polls is not very high.  What’s much higher is tracking the progress of legislation that would expand early childhood education to every single child in America -- legislation that would increase the minimum wage.

It was notable in one of the polls -- Kristen, I believe it was your poll -- that indicated that about 50 percent of Republicans, including 50 percent of individuals who identify themselves as members of the tea party, support increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.  That is a notable finding from the polls.  So, see, we do read the newspaper about polls.

And in some cases, and particularly in this case, it identifies some clear areas for cooperation and common ground -- that we could do something really important for our economy, that we could do something to address the problem of decreasing economic mobility in this country by increasing the minimum wage.  That's something that close to a majority of Republicans and tea partiers support.  So maybe that's something that we can work on.

Those are the kinds of things that we’re focused on, and those are the kinds of policy priorities that we’re tracking.  And frankly, they attract a whole lot more attention here at the White House than individual poll numbers.

Q    And last question, since you're talking about the successes right now of the website -- there were clear problems at the beginning.  And understanding that the website did not meet a level of expectation here, did the IT contractors meet the contracted requirements early on for the website?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s pretty clear that there were some failures in that process.  I can’t stand up here and give you an appraisal of what exactly went wrong with the design and implementation of  Fortunately, we have the Inspector General at HHS who is working on that topic.  The President stood at this podium about a month ago and indicated that he had some unanswered questions about this process that he was determined to get an answer to.

Q    But the question I’m asking is, did the IT contractors deliver what they were asked to do?  Even though there were problems, did they deliver on their contract?

MR. EARNEST:  That is a legitimate question.  It’s a question I do not know the answer to.  I suspect that it is part of the inquiry that will be conducted by the Inspector General at HHS.  I would encourage you to ask him to confirm whether or not that’s the case.  But I would anticipate that it’s among the kinds of questions that people will be asking as they consider what went wrong. 

What we’re focused on right now is what we can do to make this right:  to make sure that we can expand access and give people opportunity to sign up before this December 23rd deadline; to make sure that our website is functioning smoothly; to make sure that information that is submitted to the website is accurately conveyed to the insurance company so that people’s insurance coverage does kick in by January 1st.  And we want to make sure that we have an ongoing effort to educate the American public about what kind of opportunities are available to them through -- that there are a lot of people out there that don’t have insurance right now, that if they go and visit the website they will find out that they can purchase quality, affordable health insurance, in many cases they qualify for tax credits.  And getting that word out is also an important priority. 

That’s what we’re focused on right now.  But you raise a legitimate question, but it’s one that I can’t answer right now.

Thanks, everybody.  Have a good Wednesday.

Q    Does the President have anything on his schedule the rest of the week?

MR. EARNEST:  Nothing that I have to talk about right now, but as we get some more details, we’ll let you know.

Thanks, guys.

Q    Press conference before the end of the year?

MR. EARNEST:  We’ll see.  Stay tuned.  Thanks, everybody.

2:17 P.M. EST

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